Forty-six warriors stealthily crept up to the mansion and scaled the walls. A drum sounded in the night, "boom, boom-boom." The ronin launched their attack.
The tale of the 47 Ronin is one of the most famous in Japanese history - and it is a true story.
During the Tokugawa era in Japanese history, the country was ruled by the shogun, or highest military official, in the name of the emperor. Under him were a number of regional lords, the daimyo, each of whom employed a contingent of samurai warriors.
All of these military elites were expected to follow the code of bushido - the "way of the warrior." Among the demands of bushido were loyalty to one's master, and fearlessness in the face of death.
The 47 Ronin, or the Faithful Retainers:
In 1701, the emperor Higashiyama sent imperial envoys from his seat at Kyoto to the shogun's court at Edo (Tokyo). A high shogunate official, Kira Yoshinaka, served as master of ceremonies for the visit. Two young daimyo, Asano Naganori of Ako and Kamei Sama of Tsumano, were in the capital performing their alternate attendance duties, so the shogunate gave them the task of looking after the emperor's envoys.
Kira was assigned to train the daimyo in court etiquette. Asano and Kamei offered gifts to Kira, but the official considered them totally inadequate and was furious. He began to treat the two daimyo with contempt.
Kamei was so angry about the humiliating treatment he wanted to kill Kira, but Asano preached patience. Fearful for their lord, Kamei's retainers secretly paid Kira a large sum of money, and the official began to treat Kamei better. He continued to torment Asano, however, until the young daimyo could not endure it.
When Kira called Asano a "country bumpkin without manners" in the main hall, Asano drew his sword and attacked the official. Kira suffered only a shallow wound to his head, but shogunate law strictly forbade anyone from drawing a sword within Edo castle. The 34-year old Asano was ordered to commit seppuku.
After Asano's death, the shogunate confiscated his domain, leaving his family impoverished and his samurai reduced to the status of ronin.
Ordinarily, samurai were expected to follow their master into death rather than facing the dishonor of being a masterless samurai. Forty-seven of Asano's 320 warriors, however, decided to remain alive and seek revenge.
Led by Oishi Yoshio, the 47 Ronin swore a secret oath to kill Kira at any cost. Fearful of just such an event, Kira fortified his home and posted a large number of guards. The Ako ronin bided their time, waiting for Kira's vigilance to relax.
To help put Kira off his guard, the ronin scattered to different domains, taking menial jobs as merchants or laborers. One of them married into the family that had built Kira's mansion, so that he could have access to the blueprints.
Oishi himself began to drink and spend heavily on prostitutes, doing a very convincing imitation of an utterly debased man. When a samurai from Satsuma recognized the drunk Oishi laying in the street, he mocked him and kicked him in the face, a mark of complete contempt.
Oishi divorced his wife and sent her and their younger children away, to protect them. His oldest son chose to stay.
The Ronin Take Revenge:
As snow sifted down on the evening of December 14, 1702, the forty-seven ronin met once more at Honjo, near Edo, prepared for their attack. One young ronin was assigned to go to Ako and tell their tale.
The forty-six first warned Kira's neighbors of their intentions, then surrounded the official's house armed with ladders, battering rams and swords.
Silently, some of the ronin scaled the walls of Kira's mansion, then overpowered and tied up the startled night watchmen. At the drummer's signal, the ronin attacked from the front and rear. Kira's samurai were caught asleep, and rushed out to fight shoeless in the snow.
Kira himself, wearing only undergarments, ran to hide in a storage shed. The ronin searched the house for an hour, finally discovering the official cowering in the shed amongst heaps of coal.
Recognizing him by the scar on his head left by Asano's blow, Oishi dropped to his knees and offered Kira the same wakizashi (short sword) that Asano had used to commit seppuku. He soon realized that Kira did not have the courage to kill himself honorably, however - the official showed no inclination to take the sword, and was shaking in terror. Oishi beheaded Kira.
The ronin reassembled in the mansion's courtyard. All forty-six were alive. They had killed as many as forty of Kira's samurai, at the cost of only four walking wounded.
At daybreak, the ronin walked through town to the Sengakuji Temple, where their lord was buried. The story of their revenge spread through town quickly, and crowds gathered to cheer them along the way.
Oishi rinsed the blood from Kira's head, and presented it at Asano's grave. The forty-six ronin then sat and waited to be arrested.
Martyrdom and Glory:
While the bakufu decided their fate, the ronin were divided into four groups and housed by daimyo families - the Hosokawa, Mari, Midzuno and Matsudaira families. The ronin had become national heroes because of their adherence to bushido and their brave show of loyalty; many people hoped that they would be granted a pardon for killing Kira.
Although the shogun himself was tempted to grant clemency, his councilors could not condone illegal actions. On February 4, 1703, the ronin were ordered to commit seppuku - a more honorable sentence than execution.
Hoping for a last-minute reprieve, the four daimyo who had custody of the ronin waited until nightfall, but there would be no pardon. The forty-six ronin, including Oishi and his 16-year-old son, committed seppuku.
The ronin were buried near their master at the Sengkuji Temple in Tokyo. Their graves instantly became a site of pilgrimage for admiring Japanese. One of the first people to visit was the samurai from Satsuma who had kicked Oishi in the street. He apologized, and then killed himself as well.
The fate of the forty-seventh ronin is not entirely clear. Most sources say that when he returned from telling the tale at the ronins' home domain of Ako, the shogun pardoned him due to his youth. He lived to a ripe old age, and then was buried alongside the others.
To help calm public outrage over the sentence handed down to the ronin, the shogun's government returned the title and one-tenth of Asano's lands to his eldest son.
The 47 Ronin in Popular Culture:
During the Tokugawa era, Japan was at peace. Since the samurai were a warrior class with little fighting to do, many Japanese feared that their honor and their spirit were fading away. The story of the Forty-seven Ronin gave people hope that some true samurai remained.
As a result, the story was adapted into countless kabuki plays, bunraku puppet shows, woodblock prints, and later films and television shows. Fictionalized versions of the story are known as Chushingura, and continue to be very popular to this day.
People from all over the world still travel to Sengkuji Temple to see the burial site of Asano and the Forty-seven Ronin. They can also view the original receipt given to the temple by the friends of Kira, when they came to claim his head for burial.
De Bary, William Theodore, Carol Gluck and Arthur E. Tiedemann. Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol. 2, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Ikegami, Eiko. The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Marcon, Federico and Henry D. Smith II. "A Chushingura Palimpsest: Young Motoori Norinaga Hears the Story of the Ako Ronin from a Buddhist Priest," Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Winter, 2003) pp. 439-465.
Till, Barry. The 47 Ronin: A Story of Samurai Loyalty and Courage, Beverly Hills: Pomegranate Press, 2005.